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Teaching has been my passion for the past 12 years. I am proud to call myself an educator. For the first two years, I taught first grade. It prepared me to effectively teach kindergarten while also focusing on kids’ social and emotional development. I have enjoyed working in Florida schools over the past six years, as has my partner, Jeramiah, who is also an educator. However, recently there has been a major cause for concern. 

I have been stricken with fear over how Florida’s new law limiting discussions of LGBTQ+ discussions in school will affect me as a person and a professional. As a kindergarten teacher who is gay and has pictures of himself and his partner in his classroom, I regularly answer questions from my students like: “Mr. Bernaert, who is that in those pictures?” “Is that your brother?” “What did you do over the weekend?” As contributing members of society, teachers shouldn’t have to feel like they need to go back into the closet or hide who they are as people.

I have been stricken with fear over how Florida’s new law limiting discussions of LGBTQ+ discussions in school will affect me as a person and a professional.

If you have ever been around 5- and 6-year-olds, the number of questions asked in a single day can be relentless. Multiply it by 19, which is the number of students I have in my classroom, and it’s a never-ending cycle of question and answer. To be honest, I wouldn’t want it any other way. Curious minds are learning minds. 

But, because of Florida’s new law, I’m afraid I could lose my job if I answer these questions honestly and have frank, open conversations with my students about the world around them. Can I talk about my partner with my students? What do I say when they ask, “What does ‘partner’ mean?” How do I respond when my students ask me about another student who has two moms? 

These are all questions I have wrestled with in my mind as I prepare to teach under this new law. The chilling effect and scare tactics have already hit home. After an interview with a local news station last month about how this law would affect me was featured on HBO’s “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver,” I was asked to appear in a live interview on MSNBC

Following this interview, the number of negative social media messages, angry calls to my school, cynical YouTube comments and even TikTok videos attacking me was astounding. Many even used the words “pedophile” and “groomer.” To have people describe you in such horrible terms because of whom you love — to have someone assume you’d hurt a child in any way when your lifelong passion has been to foster their growth and education — is hurtful and wrong. 

March 29, 202203:19

Both teachers and students should be able to talk about their families regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity. 

The harassment didn’t let up. Calls and emails were made to my superintendent demanding my termination, far-right news outlets began running headlines like “Gay kindergarten teacher wants to talk to his kids about his love life,” and the number of random-number phone calls to my personal cellphone increased twofold. 

Both teachers and students should be able to talk about their families regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity.

In the face of all this, I plan to continue to fulfill my goal as an educator and incorporate the three words people see as they approach the elementary school where I teach: Family, memories and passion. They are the words I am motivated by every day when I step into my classroom. I engage my students’ families in their children’s education while also modeling how our class works together as a family. I help instill memories, lessons and skills my kids will take with them through adulthood and pass along to their own children. Finally, I hope to create a passion for learning in my students and a belief that in a world where you can be anything, you should just be yourself.  

It’s what any good teacher who values providing high-quality instruction would strive to do. I work diligently to meet every one of my students’ educational needs. And a key part of that education is the necessary, invaluable building block of community.

When community is built in the classroom, the level of engagement I see in my students makes it hard to believe they are only 5 and 6 years old.

But the Parental Rights in Education law, which critics have called the “Don’t Say Gay” law, ultimately erodes that community. It comes down to this: Rather than helping teachers when they’re working overtime to get kids caught up after a challenging two years of Covid, the Florida Legislature and Gov. Ron DeSantis are writing laws that target LGBTQ+ educators and educators in general.

At a time when teachers are helping children learn, grow and build a community that values the diversity of opinions and identities, Florida legislators are seeking to instill fear in members of certain communities and deny their existence. We can’t let them win.

Related

Source: This post first appeared on NBC News

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